A new report released by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general says that the agency should have issued an emergency order to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan seven months before action was taken. The report asserted that the agency had both the authority and “sufficient information” to act on the emerging lead contamination in Flint’s water supply.
The contamination began in April of 2015, when an emergency manager opted to use the local Flint river as a water source, as a cost saving measure. Michigan’s environmental agency had not required Flint officials to use corrosion control measures to stop lead from leaching into the water supply from old pipes. The report said that the EPA’s Midwest office had knew these corrosion control measures were not in place, and furthermore that Flint’s water was above the federal threshold for lead content, as early as June of 2015. The report cited a memo from that month outlining “major public health concerns in the city of Flint.”
The office refrained from issuing an emergency order to address the situation, concluding that it was legally prevented from doing so because the state of Michigan was already addressing the lead concerns.
The new report states that this was not the case, saying “In the absence of EPA intervention in Flint, the state continued to delay taking action to require corrosion control or provide alternative drinking water supplies. Additional data in August and September 2015 demonstrated lead contamination was widespread, and also demonstrated an increase in the blood lead levels of children living in Flint.”
The emergency order to address the crisis was not issued until the following January.
The EPA’s inspector general, Arthur Elkins, said in a statement that “These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency. Federal law provides the EPA with emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised. Employees must be knowledgeable, trained and ready to act when such a public health threat looms.”
The 16-page report details a number of proposals for policy changes to prevent such a mistake in the future.
The report is just one part of the EPA’s ongoing investigation into the Flint crisis. Called a “management alert”, it focuses on calling attention to the “immediacy of concerns and need for action to appropriate EPA officials.” The inspector general also recommended updates to the agency’s policy guidance, to provide examples of when emergency orders should be issued.